If You Want Entertainment Go to the Circus


World Cup 2010

For the soccerati, the fashionable book for this World Cup is Soccernomics by Simon Kuper, which is, as the title suggests, Freakonomics but about soccer. It has the first explanation of game theory I’ve ever understood and the unlikely thesis that England would do better at the game if they let the posh kids have a go. Its main point though is that thanks to the spread of globalization, the game is about to get a lot duller.

Everybody knows everything about everyone. Teams that have been thought of as tactically naïve (read African), weaker (read Asian), and overly gung-ho (read Latin American), have now adopted a much stricter tactical acumen—they set up defensively, invite the other team onto them and then hope to catch them on the counter attack. It started with South Korea’s run to the semifinal in the 2002 World Cup, took real hold when Greece won the European Championship in 2004, and reached its apotheosis when Inter Milan defeated Barcelona in the Champions League semifinal this year, despite being down to ten men and ceding seventy-five percent of possession to the Catalans.

The pleasures of truly bizarre play or utter annhilation have vanished. Instead we’ve had France versus Uruguay, a game in which both teams looked genuinely frightened of scoring and the 1–0 victories of both Argentina and Ghana, both of which were convincing without being particularly thrilling.

And then there was the US–England match, which had anticlimax written all over it. In England, where I watched, ITV managed to cut to a commercial just before England scored and cut back in the middle of the celebrations, thus denying the nation the collective roar that they had been preparing for since the draw was made, or since 1812 depending on which way you look at it. The less said about the American goal the better. There has been plenty of talk about the unpredictability of the Jabulani but until Rob Green’s howler, the main effect of it seemed to be long-range shots endlessly flying miles over the bar. There was something rather end-of-Empire about the ball squirming into the net. The teams took turns in the second half to press, both had one good chance to score and both, predictably, failed. (There is something Paxil-requiring in thinking about Emile Heskey, the misser of the England chance who has the astonishing goal-scoring record of seven goals in fifty nine internationals. It never seemed to cross his mind that he might score, let alone ours.) A draw had been emotionally agreed upon. Even the fans in the stand looked rather similar in their red, white, and blue; you had to really lean in to see if the focus was on stars or crosses.

If ever a team would look historically drawn to the ruthless 1–0 win, it would be the Germans; Teutonic efficiency is, after all, what they are known for. But never forget this is the home of Schiller and Goethe; Romanticism was born here. I missed the Germany–Australia game. Not by choice—I was on a plane—but judging by the reports and YouTube, it was rather a dazzling affair with the German team, their youngest for seventy-six years, demonstrating a commitment to attack that other countries (if you happen to be reading Raymond Domench) would do well to emulate.

Since then, Holland has beaten Denmark convincingly if not excitingly by two goals to nil, and as I type, Japan is 1–0 up against Cameroon. Things may be looking up—especially with the debuts of Brazil and Spain just around the corner.

A brief note on the vuvuzela, the locust-sounding trumpet that drones on incessantly through out the game and is providing the controversy du jour. I think they’re fantastic. If the story of this World Cup so far is the story of Northern European ascendancy, in style if not in content, the vuvuzela is doing all it can to resist the hegemony: the players can’t hear the coaches or each other, the national songs are being drowned out, and the spectators sitting in their safe European homes are having their viewing pleasure disturbed. Welcome to Africa.